Picking up my son at day care, I hesitated outside the sliding glass door. The older kids—the ones who compete like world-class bird-watchers to spot arriving parents—hadn’t seen me yet. I had the chance to observe my 3-year-old playing quietly with a bulldozer in the corner, all by himself. On the other side of the playroom, I couldn’t help noticing teeth marks on the neck of one of the younger toddlers.
As my son and I walked home, we passed a neighbor’s front-yard fountain. Once upon a time, that fountain could inspire long father-son conversations about water pressure, hydrodynamics, or the sounds fishies make. But today, nothing. He simply shuffled past, his hand in mine, more interested in his blue Velcro shoes and the cracked L.A. sidewalk beneath them. I asked how his day went.
“I bited a baby,” he said in a cracked whisper, without looking up. “I’m a bad guy.”
The past two months had been hard. All my shirts had tiny holes in them. My forearms had developed the scuffed, bruised palette of a veterinarian. I dreaded facing the parents of bitten children at day care—they’d smile and say, “Good morning (your son is a sociopathic monster!),” and I’d smile back: “Good morning (nghhhhhhh sorrrrrrrrry!).” But nothing broke me in half like seeing my guy’s face that afternoon, struggling (and failing) to understand the emotional chaos he felt inside.
Inevitably, the sweet old woman in charge of our day care summoned my wife and me for a meeting, after hours in the blue-carpeted playroom. It brought on the familiar sinking dread of being called to the principal’s office. Although a progressive thinker in almost every aspect of child-rearing, our day care lady adds just a dash of anti-orthodoxy into her philosophical gumbo that tends to overwhelm the other flavors. But by this point, my wife and I would do anything to help our son. We listened with open minds.
With a knowing look in her eye, she hooked a crooked finger in my direction and said, “He has a blankie, doesn’t he.” Not a question. “By letting him use a blankie,” she continued, “you’re treating him like a baby. Therefore he’s acting like a baby—and biting like a baby.”
This opening salvo had implications that demanded a swift and firm response. “He does indeed have a blanket,” I said, “and he sleeps with it and needs it when he’s upset, and he loves it so much, and under no circumstances will we get rid of it.”
A few seconds loudly ticked by on the wall clock. Open mind, open mind, open mind. I cleared my throat. “That being said … go on.”
“It’s time to get rid of it,” our day care lady said. “He’s emotionally immature because he stifles his feelings by retreating to his blankie.”
Parental indignation washed over me, but I took a deep breath. On one hand, he did go for his blankie whenever he was upset, and we’d never really heard or encouraged him to talk about feelings directly. On the other hand, our day care lady might not be hip to the infinite amount of scientific research that says transitional objects—e.g. blankies—are important to a child’s development. They allow children to have authority over something. They help with separation anxiety. Rather than holding kids back, security objects act as a tether allowing them to explore the world while still feeling safe.
How did she suggest we get rid of the blankie? She said to tell him we’re going to pick a day, and he’s going to throw it away on that day.
“Throw it away, like in the garbage?” Yes. “With all the … garbage?” Yes. She swore that when the time came, he would be excited to do it.
Her idea had its own logic, but every fiber of my being screamed to let our son keep his security object as long as he wanted it. It’s not like when he’s in his 30s he’ll still sleep with his childhood blanket.
Is now a good time to mention that I still sleep with my childhood blanket?
Ahem. I still sleep with my childhood blanket.
Actually—and I’m not making this up—everybody does. I know you probably don’t, but you’re the only one. The rest of us do. I’m not even supposed to be telling you this. Yeah, see, we all brought our blankets to college with us. We’ve all told our girlfriends and boyfriends, Hey, it’s just this ironic thing, don’t worry about it.
OK, maybe not. Does this make me weird? Maybe. But my 3-year-old doesn’t think it’s weird; he thinks it’s cool. When it comes to blankies, he wants to be just like Daddy!
My blanket is about 3 feet square, white(ish, at this point), and oh-so-soft from constant wear and tear, as if a really cool guy slept with it for 12,410 nights. My mom gave it to me the day she brought my 10-pound, 9-ounce self into this world. Why do I still have it? I like how it feels, and it’s just the right size to roll up under my head so I can read comics in bed. I truly have no idea why it’s still with me; I’ve just always had it. I can tell you that throwing it in the garbage (!) would feel like killing a loved one. Not a person, I mean—more like a stomping on a gerbil you’ve had for a really long time. What kind of monster would do that?
A few days (and bites) later, constant parental self-doubt was gnawing on the bones of my certainty. I realized that any thoughts I had on the emotional implausibility of giving up a blanket were incredibly biased—they were filtered through the lens of someone who’s had his for 34 years. Maybe my son would think it was no big deal. My wife and I talked it over in bed that night and agreed we should give it a shot. If we screwed it up, it would simply be another entry in an infinite list of mistakes.
A more important factor in our decision is that we had a backup blanket. Early on, we secretly cut the thing in half in case of emergency—worst-case scenario, we could miraculously “find” it—no harm done! And if he actually got excited and wanted to throw his blanket in the garbage, who were we to stop him? Maybe jettisoning the blanket really would help him express emotions. Maybe, as our son says about a lot of things, it would make him a big boy.
In the silence that followed, my wife’s eyes settled on my blanket.
* * *
The next morning, I found my son lying on the kitchen floor, a few flakes of crusted oatmeal in his mop of brown hair, lining up his toys. “Dad, everyone wants pizza, but there’s a cat in the way so they have to wait,” he reported.
My blanket in hand, I crouched down next to him. “Let’s try an idea together, you and me,” I said. “We’re both going to throw our blankets in the trash and be big boys. Want to?”
“Yes!” he shouted.
My palms were starting to sweat. I proceeded to step two: asking him to pick the day we’d throw them away.
“In one minute,” he replied.
“OK, we’ll pick a day in one minute,” I said.
“No,” he said, “let’s throw them away in one minute!”
My eye twitched involuntarily.
My son charged to his bedroom with that high-speed gait that’s fascinated me since he learned to walk—incredibly sturdy, yet somehow listing like a boat in a hurricane—before padding back into the kitchen holding his blanket, a huge smile on his face. Without hesitation, he opened the immense trash drawer with his tiny hands and dropped in his blanket with gleeful abandon. The blue-and-white fabric settled among old banana peels and used paper towels.
Then, laughing, he grabbed my blanket out of my hands and threw it in on top of his. He danced around the kitchen singing to the tune of Frère Jacques: “Goodbye blankets! Goodbye blankets! Big boys now! Big boys now!”
We stood together for a moment, my son and I. He had no idea I was considering waiting for him to leave so I could dig out my blanket and whisk it away to the washing machine.
Then his face lit up: “I hear the garbage truck!”
I suddenly remembered being 5 years old in my bedroom during a thunderstorm, pulling my blanket over my head to protect me from the rattling window.
My son’s tiny fingers closed around my pinkie. “Don’t worry, Daddy, we’re big boys now, hurry!”
My spirit must have left my body, because I saw a man who looked like me crush his blanket down among the moldy bagels and mildewed sponges, tie off the trash bag, carry it outside, and toss it into the big black container at the end of the driveway. I took my son’s hand as the truck pulled up, its fearsome claw extending, lifting, and with a thud-thump-crash I’d heard a thousand times before, it dumped our blankets into its belly and drove away. That wasn’t so hard.
“Daddy,” said my son, “you’re hurting my hand.”
“ … Sorry.”
* * *
From that moment on, it was like a switch had been flipped in him. I have to admit, the day care lady was right—he did seem more confident, more articulate, happier. The other day, he wandered into the house from the backyard, face covered in dirt and pants streaked with grass stains, and said, apropos of nothing, “Daddy, remember when you and me threw away our blankets? We’re big boys together, you and me. We did it!” We sure did.
You may be wondering if I sometimes find myself trawling Google Maps, searching satellite images of local landfills, trying to spot my lifelong companion ripped up under layers of milk cartons and spoiled food. Of course I don’t do that! (But if I did, my best guess would be the Sunshine Canyon Landfill.)
Now for the million-dollar question: Did throwing away the blanket actually stop the biting? Was the instinct behind the whole thing correct? Nope! Ha ha ha, the joke’s on me and my blankie. The biting is getting less frequent, though, and more importantly, we’re working on his self-control and his understanding of his own and other people’s feelings during the times he isn’t biting. Previously unheard phrases like “I’m mad at you” and the empathetic “She looks upset” are said effortlessly now, all the time.
My love for my son pushed me to do a thing I never would have thought possible before I had children. Throwing away our blankets was a ceremony of eternal bonding between father and son. Maybe not to him—he who’s already forgotten about his. But it will always be to me. After 34 years, it was time to let go. I can’t wait to tell the day care lady that I, too, am now a big boy.